The Warmth of a House

Let’s go back. Back to a spring afternoon in late April, 20 years ago. The temperature in Michigan is cooler than I was used to in Virginia, but I was trying to be optimistic. After all, this was our new home, although I came kicking and screaming. Now we were looking for houses. The last couple of weeks we had seen our share – good, bad, too small, old, newer, in need of repair, poorly renovated, dirty, clean – you name it, we saw them. Trying to find the perfect house, within our budget, in a new city was challenging. Last week we had found a house we liked in a convenient neighborhood, well-aged, nicely upgraded, and within our mortgage amount. This is it we thought…so we made an offer. Our offer was turned down immediately when three others outbid us! Why would you offer thousands more than the asking price?

On a late Wednesday evening, our realtor, Anne, called. “My apologies for calling so late, but there is a house you need to see. Let me explain something. It’s only being shown tomorrow in an open house setting and there is no “FOR SALE” sign in the yard. Interested?” Timing couldn’t have been worse. Daryl was ready to open one of the first Circuit City Stores in West Michigan, and many of the corporate dignitaries were coming tomorrow from our beloved home of Richmond, Virginia for the festivities. I told Anne that it would be me and our four year old daughter, Katie.

Anne picked us up and on the drive over explained that the owner had lived there for almost 30 years. She raised six children in the home and wasn’t looking forward to selling. She and her husband had retired and were moving to Nevada to live close to their daughter in a warmer setting. We pulled onto the street and I recalled that this was such a beautiful section of town. One thing we had quickly learned. In Grand Rapids there wasn’t a good side of town and a not so good side of town. It was more mixed together with pockets of special neighborhoods all over the city. This was one of those areas. As we pulled up, true as Anne’s word, there was no “FOR SALE” sign in the yard. There were several other cars parked along the street for those attending the event.

Getting out of the car I glanced at a few daffodils that were struggling out of the mulched soil along with purple crocus’ just beginning to peak around. The yard was tidy, although the grass was not green and the hard effects of a Michigan winter were still visible. The wood-sided home was painted white with green shutters, very typical looking of houses built in the 1920’s. Several maturely grown shrubberies were hugged tightly to the house. We stood on the porch waiting to be greeted by the other realtor. “Hello, welcome to 325 Aurora Street,” she said. “I’m Barb.” It was like stepping back in time. EVERYTHING was grandmother green…you know, that ugly light green. It was a color that looked as if a drop of green food coloring had been mixed into antique white paint. The walls, the trim, and oh my goodness, even the ceilings! What wasn’t painted had layers of patterned wallpaper – birds, feathers, ferns, flowers – awful. But there was an instinctively charming warmth that I felt right away. The rooms were large and there were windows galore, 43 exactly, as I would later learn.

I held Katie’s hand and we strolled through the rooms. As we walked upstairs, music met us on the stairway. All the bedrooms had radios on the bedside tables playing soft jazz with familiar tunes from Frank, Ella, Louie and Dean. I’m a sucker for the old standards and instantly fell in love. The rooms were lit with soft lamp light as if just waiting to soothe the tensions of the day. The carpeting had years of footsteps and wear. Some of it sculptured, some shag, but ALL green. The curtains hung from the windows like they were dared to move. Each room draped in a different fabric, Dotted Swiss, crocheted lace, calico print, and sheer chiffon with probably the first plastic mini blinds that were ever made. The four bedrooms were good-sized, with tiny but unique closets. When you opened the doors, the clothes rack pulled out of the wall with a very well made and detailed apparatus that was heavy and brass. And there was a cute little drawer at the bottom of each closet. I walked away wondering what those drawers were used for, stockings, gloves maybe, or scarves? The smallest of the bedrooms was at the back of the house and labeled on the original house plans as the “sleeping porch.” It overlooked the yard and the park behind the house. There was a tiny porch off of this room, just one charming detail after another and I was soaking it all in and imagining the home filled with life.

We walked downstairs and moved to the backyard. I loved the patio and could envision our weathered furniture sitting here. As I headed back in, I noticed that Katie was no longer by my side. Walking through the living room, the homeowner’s realtor stopped me. The very stylish woman had the sleeves rolled up on her rich camel colored shirt dress. “Would anyone like a hotdog?” she asked. Before she could get the next words out of her mouth I thought this was the most bizarre question I’d ever been asked at an open house! “The little girl said she was hungry,” smiling widely as she walked back to the kitchen. Of course that little girl was Katie! “Oh honey,” I said. “You can wait until we get home to eat.” Oh how I wish that cell phone cameras were used in 1996. I can still picture sweet Katie sitting at the kitchen table. A big bow in her blonde curls, swinging her red Keds-covered tootsies, with arms crossed on the table, waiting patiently to be served.

“So what do you think?” “I really like it. It needs lots of updating, but I do like it.” “Should we call Daryl?” Anne asked. Oh boy, I had dreaded that thought. I knew he was crazy busy and had been up to his ear lobes in executive ridicule. “Hey sweetie, how was the visit?” I asked. “It went well. As a matter of fact, they just left for the airport,” he replied. “Well I’m at this open house and I would really like you to see this place – could Anne come pick you up?” “Dana, are you kidding me, I really don’t have time for this today…can we see it tomorrow?” “Well, it’s kind of strange, but the owner is only showing it today.” I replied. Frustrated, he said, “Okay, have her come get me, but I can’t be there long.” Anne left to fetch Daryl while Katie had her feast and I continued taking it all in.

When Daryl got there others were asking questions of both the realtor and Antonia, who was the homeowner. Antonia. She was a tall, whimsical woman with blonde, cotton-textured hair, late 60’s probably, very chatty and an easy smile. Daryl did a walkthrough and I could tell he had reservations about how much work it would require of him. Suddenly, there was music. Not from the bedroom radios, but LIVE music. From an accordion, no less. We looked at each other with puzzled faces. As we reached the downstairs hallway, we could see that Antonia was the musician and Katie was clapping and dancing around in the living room, entertaining whoever would stop and applaud! What an evening, I thought!

We decided to make an offer and so did two other couples. Anne told us that Antonia and her realtor were going to make a decision quickly. We were feeling a myriad of emotions. “Don’t you just love all of the built-ins,” I asked. “Our crystal would be right at home in those dining room cabinets. And you could put your CD player and speakers in the living room bookcase.” Within 30 minutes they called us in and told us that our offer had been accepted with a little negotiating on both ends. As we were signing the necessary documents, Antonia told us that she knew we were the family who should now live in her home. She told us that when we walked in her crucifixes that were hanging in every room, along with her rosary beads had turned gold. “I knew it was a sign,” she went on to explain. “Your family is who should live here.” This has got to be one of the most unique house buying experiences – ever – we thought. Twenty years later and that experience is still as vivid as it was that night. I will never forget it.

Owning an old house is not for the squeamish I quickly learned.  As you’re moving in, reality sets in. We had no idea how to do anything that we envisioned. The first slap in the face was that it was not move-in ready. Although we had purchased it in April and closed in May, part of the agreement stated that the owners would rent from us until July 31 when they moved. We could move in on August 1.

I recall sitting in the floor, cleaning the oven and boohooing. I was surrounded by green walls and crunchy, disgusting carpeting. And this house has 43 windows, I reminded myself! Now with all the nostalgic curtains gone, we found ourselves with bare windows in most rooms and only the mauve plastic mini blinds in others. As we were asking questions that mystical April evening, we learned that the house had no air conditioning. “This is Michigan, you really don’t need it,” was our reply from everyone. “With all these wonderful windows, you’ll get lots of fresh breezes!” The house has such a cottage feeling, it would be refreshing. The week after moving in Daryl left for a week of meetings in Richmond. As luck would have it, the late summer of 1996 in Michigan was one of the hottest and most humid on record. I opened the windows, but there was no air – just still, humid muck. The bigger problem was, this charming old house was smack dab in the city, and while I liked that, I didn’t feel safe enough to open ground-level windows when I was alone with a four year old, especially overnight. It was so hot that I went to the car to cool off since I was unable to sleep in the heat. Plus, we didn’t know anyone to go to for reprieve. I had saved $5K to do a couple of small renovation projects. After two days in the 100 degree heat I decided if I was staying, I needed central air. I called after hearing an ad from a local company. The rep came up from the basement and said, “Ma’am, your furnace is old too, and inefficient. While we’re installing air conditioning you really should get both. We have a special price, its $5K.” My decorating budget!  Within hours after installation, I was able to feel the humidity fade. I’ve never regretted that decision; however, we enjoyed the green carpeting and brown bird wallpaper for several more years.

Over time, the projects have been many. Hours of researching magazine pages, paint swatches, fabric samples, and Katie always says that her most memorable spring break was a week spent in Home Depot. Eventually, the green was replaced with colonial yellow, periwinkle blues, pinks and navy, all with picket fence white trim and ceilings. Room by room Daryl removed all of the 1960’s shag and crunchy carpeting and to our delight, oak and maple wood flooring was what lay beneath. Ceiling fans and updated lighting were added to most rooms. A downstairs closet was sacrificed and a small half bath became Katie’s new bathroom. Missing the Florida Room from our Richmond house, a screened porch was expanded and beautifully transformed into a sun room, affectionately known as the Virginia Room. Finally, the kitchen was upgraded with counter tops, sink, cabinet additions and wallpaper. Did I say, wallpaper? Yes, but no birds, ferns, feathers, foiled, or fuzzy. And, all those windows eventually became covered with two inch plantation blinds and cotton, scalloped-bottomed shades.

By the eighth year, the exterior was painted Shenandoah Taupe with Kettle Black shutters and a Talbots’ Red door. The study windows bow and I had wooden window boxes built. I plant the boxes seasonally and always have to remember they only get shade due to the sycamore and maple trees standing so closely by. The front cement porch, walkway, and foundation of the Virginia Room were all replaced with brick that looks worn and well used.

The study, is where a great deal of my time is spent since I work from home. It’s a cozy room with the perfect street view. As the window boxes blossom it only adds to the pleasure of creativity. The previous owner, accordion-playing, devout Catholic, Antonia, was a hand writing analyst and this space was her office too. For years we received packages of samples from attorneys, courts and government agencies all over the country that we would forward to her.

Through the years we’ve found and learned surprises. In the basement are barres, like those that would be used in a dance studio. When we tore out a first floor closet to convert the half bath to a full one, there was aqua, ballerina wallpaper which clearly had the 1920’s written all over it. I saved a square of it.  When Katie was trying to make her decision about changing her major to English and writing, appearing from nowhere and obviously tucked deeply under a drawer in one of the built-ins, was an old Writer’s Digest magazine dated from the 80’s, belonging to Antonia. We took this as our own special sign to move forward with it.

In 2012, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, we had just returned from vacation. I was in the back yard when I heard Katie talking to someone. When I looked up, Katie was introducing me to a woman and her husband who were in town from Ohio for her fiftieth high school reunion. Her name was Susan. “I had to stop by and see this house. My family lived here from 1940 to 1966.” She went on to tell us that she had gone to Michigan State after her high school graduation in 1962. “When I got married my reception was here in the backyard,” she said. “Oh, and President Ford was here for my wedding.” “Oh my gosh, really! A president has been here? Tell me about it,” I excitedly asked. She said that her uncle was a dairy owner in town and he was friends with then-Congressman Gerald Ford. “He was invited to my wedding, and in fact, he had been to dinner at our house with my uncle before, and this is where he sat.” She was pointing to the chair facing the wall as we stood in the dining room. Needless to say I was bubbling over with enthusiasm. “I love finding out these great things about the house – thank you for stopping by!” She further explained that the dancing barres in the basement were there because the woman who had originally had the house built in 1920 was a dancer for a dance company in town long before the Grand Rapids Ballet existed. “She also taught private lessons in the basement,” she said. “That also explains the ballerina wallpaper in the bathroom,” I grinned. Since that day, I’ve considered putting up a “President Gerald R. Ford Dined Here” plaque in our dining room and I tell everyone who eats with us the story of the previous famous diner.

Now, as we consider making a move back to Virginia, I’m finding myself not wanting to leave this house. Katie grew up here, her friends stayed here – and some still do from time to time. All of her FIRSTS were here; learning to read in her pink, book-filled bedroom, losing teeth, First Communions, dances, proms, graduations all started here. There’s a warmth here that I felt that first afternoon and I still feel every time I walk in the door. We entertain often at The Kingrey House and everyone who spends time here uses that word, “warmth”. I have cards to prove it. Thank you cards sent from friends after attending a party or an event, most using “warmth” somewhere in their message…all without prompt.

There have been Christmas parties too numerous to recall with Bing Crosby, candlelight and champagne welcoming our guests. Katie’s special birthday parties with themes from palm readers, to Gidget beach parties and southern tea soirées complete with lemon water finger bowls for washing tiny hands. Engagement parties for our friends’ kids have always been hosted here and the Virginia is For Lovers wine parties for school fund-raising auctions because we were from Virginia and it made the perfect Valentine party headliner. But the best are the patio parties with lanterns filling the backyard with twinkling light all while Van Morrison serenades us. These are just some of many reasons this old Kingrey House has always been very special to me. In a way, it has become my soul. In my mind I sometimes play the story of the next twenty years and wonder if the new owners will tell the tale about all the cocktail napkins and champagne corks they found from our life celebrations, because there have been many. We like to celebrate everything here – especially the Eves of holidays, birthdays, even Fridays…so Thursday celebrations are a big deal at The Kingrey House. Yes, will they wonder about us, all while shouting, “What’s up with these yellow walls…what WAS that woman thinking?”

There’s a part of me that looks forward to returning to the historic Commonwealth. But then, there’s the part of me that loves it here and is not ready to give up the life, friends and home we have created. Maybe we should live in both places for a while and see where our hearts lead us.





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